Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Past and the Future: Two Court Presentation Gowns from the Chicago History Museum

In my work as curatorial assistant at the Chicago History Museum I was fortunate enough to study two beautiful court presentation gowns from the 1920s. I blogged about those dresses and the ritual of the court presentation on the Chicago History Museum Blog. But I also thought there was a bigger story to be told, and so I continue the story of these two gowns here on The Fashion Historian.

Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.

Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The first gown was worn by Mary Dudley Kenna when she was presented at the Court of St. James on June 10, 1926. It was designed by Jacques Doucet for the House of Doucet.

Court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The second gown was worn by Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer, née Helen Hurley, in the spring of 1928. It was designed by Edward Molyneux. To see images of both women in their court gowns, please refer to my post on the Chicago History Museum Blog.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Both of these gowns exhibit an extraordinary technical mastery, as can be seen by the detail images peppered throughout this post. But what I find most fascinating is the contrast these two gowns present-- one representing the romanticism of a bygone age, the other representing the sleek modernity of a new era.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Both gowns are well within the aesthetics of their respective designers. But just who were Jacques Doucet and Edward Molyneux?

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Mary's gown was designed by Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) for the House of Doucet. The House of Doucet was founded in 1817 by Antoine Doucet (1795-1866), Jacques' grandfather. Originally the house supplied lingerie, lace, and embroideries, a fitting beginning for a house that would come to represent a delicate, feminine aesthetic. In the early 1840s the house was established on the Rue de la Paix, one of the most important couture streets in Paris. Jacques himself was born there in 1853 and officially joined in the house in 1874. The House of Doucet was one of the largest couture houses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and some of the great couturiers of the twentieth century worked for Doucet including Paul Poiret (worked for Doucet from 1896-1900) and Madeleine Vionnet (worked for Doucet from 1907-1912). However, the firm never truly recovered from the ravages of World War I. It merged with a lesser couture house, Doueillet, in 1924, and closed altogether in 1932.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Captain Edward Molyneux (1891-1974) was born in London and served as a captain in the British army during World War I. He also worked for couturier Lucile in London before opening his own couture house in Paris in 1919. The House of Molyneux was an enormous success and branches were soon opened in Monte Carlo, Cannes, and London. Twentieth-century couturier Pierre Balmain apprenticed at the House of Molyneux, describing it in his 1964 memoirs, My Years and Seasons, as a "temple of subdued elegance... [where] the world's well-dressed women wore the inimitable two-pieces and tailored suits with pleated skirts, bearing the label of Molyneux."

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The aesthetic of Jacques Doucet is colored by delicacy, romanticism, femininity, and a strong historical influence. Doucet himself was a great collector of 18th century art and his designs show the influence of the rococo aesthetic. Floral motifs and lace were particularly popular in his designs. 

Mary's court presentation ensemble is certainly a fitting example of the Doucet aesthetic. The cut of the gown is in the fashionable 1920s style-- loose fitting and with a dropped waist. And yet the full, gathered skirt suggests the styles of a previous era. A sense of romance and whimsey, recalling the light aesthetic of the Edwardian period (1901-1910), is conveyed by the appliqued floral motif on both the gown and train. Soft velvets and satins are expertly stitched and gathered to create soft flowers which rest lightly in an embroidered basket. There is a playful whimsey as a few flowers and buds fall gracefully from the slightly tipped basket. Overall this dress conveys a sense of soft, delicate femininity. Compare it with the Doucet gowns below, from the early 1900s:


Afternoon dress, Jacques Doucet, 1900-1903. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009.300.579ab.

Ball gown, Jacques Doucet, c. 1902. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009.300.3309ab.
The same soft femininity of these two gowns from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is adapted to 1920s fashion in Mary's court presentation gown.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
In contrast to the historic romanticism of Doucet's aesthetic, the look of the House of Molyneux was all about modernity. Molyneux designs embodied the elegant and slim aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s. His designs were restrained and avoided excess decoration, showing the influence of his military background and English heritage. Molyneux loved clean lines, and his designs were streamlined and fluid, taking inspiration from the new Art Deco style of architecture and design.

Helen's court presentation ensemble is the perfect example of this. The design is simple and clean, with lean, extenuated teardrop shapes made from concentric rows of pearls and crystals. All of these design aspects are hallmarks of the Art Deco movement. The dress itself is cut in a simple, narrow tube shape, embracing the most modern style of dress. Compare the design of Helen's dress with the Art Deco architecture below:


The Chrysler Building in Manhattan, NY. Designed by William Van Alen and constructed from 1928-1930.

Ornamental ironwork designed by Edgar Brandt for the Cheney Silk building in Manhattan, NY (now the Madison Belmont Building). Built from 1924-1925. Photo by Daniel E. Russell.
As you can see, Helen's dress fits right in with the sleek and modern style of Art Deco.

Molyneux designer label visible on the underside of the headdress associated with the gown. Court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
And so in these two dresses we see both the convergence of the past, the present, and the future. In Mary's dress Doucet adapts the delicate romanticism of the Edwardian aesthetic into the cleaner lines of the 1920s, while still maintaining a youthful, feminine charm. In Helen's dress Molyneux embraces the design of the future, adapting the ultra-modern Art Deco aesthetic into a trim gown that speaks of a new world.

The choice of these two designers most likely speaks to the personality of each woman. Perhaps Mary was more old fashioned and whimsical, while Helen embraced the new modern age. Each of these dresses gives us a glimpse of the women who wore them in an exciting era of change.

1 comment:

  1. simply amazing. Enjoying reading your posts, keep in touch! xx Peach

    http://momomoworld.blogspot.com

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